“The love of possessions is a disease with them. They take tithes from the poor and weak to support the rich who rule. They claim this mother of ours, the Earth, for their own and fence their neighbours away. If (North) America had been twice the size it is, there still would not have been enough; the Indian would still have been dispossessed.”
– Chief Sitting Bull
“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
– The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
Look at your average high school US history textbook and you’ll find the amount of space devoted to talking about American Indians is more or less negligible. There will usually be an introductory chapter dealing with “Pre- Colombian” America that focuses on strictly on tribal history because white Europeans literally haven’t shown up yet, followed by the intermittent inclusion of native peoples throughout the rest of American history when their actions had some sort of direct effect on white civilization. For instance, they’ll cover Pocahontas because she ended up marrying a Brit or they’ll give a callout box to the Wampanoag Indians because they were the ones who made sure the pilgrims at Plymouth Plantation didn’t starve due to agricultural incompetence during their first few years in Massachusetts. Very rarely is American Indian history presented on its own merits, unattached to the dominant Eurocentric model that has been taught for centuries. Instead, it is included in textbooks to frame the inevitable progress of White Americans as they gobbled up American Indian ancestral land like Kudzu enveloping an abandoned house.
If American Indians are featured in US History textbooks, they will invariably be portrayed as victims of European Colonization or caricatured to fit a preexisting narrative surrounding Anglo-Indian relations that attempts to obfuscate the borderline genocidal destruction of native peoples by whites over the course of our nation’s history. A recent study of individual states’ American history standards, which are arguably a better way to judge what content is being taught in public schools in this No Child Left Behind influenced educational system, revealed that textbook references to American Indian history are predominantly situated in the 18th and 19th century and are usually presented as an unfortunate byproduct of Manifest Destiny, with Indian tribes being defined largely by the oppression they endured through the course of westward expansion. The state standards made little to no mention of the societal contributions or cultural histories of American Indians and largely refrained from providing profiles of individual American Indians, choosing instead to ignore tribal distinctions and characterize American Indians as one vaguely amorphous people. The overarching message is as clear as it ever was: their history is not our history. You needn’t pay them any mind.
This message was reinforced for me when I visited the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Montana this past summer and found myself greeted by a military memorial that had very little to do with the battle that took place there 138 years ago or the people who had hunted the buffalo herds across its undulating prairies for centuries. In fact, it only had a passing association to the 263 members of General George Armstrong Custer’s 7th Calvary who were killed on that ground by Sioux and Cheyenne warriors just days before America’s centennial was to be celebrated. What I saw was a military cemetery, named in the honor of General Custer and filled with the bodies of presumably decent men who had served their country well enough to get buried beside their comrades. Beside them lay their wives and their forever young children, the graves punctuated by obelisks and statuettes which had been erected in memory of the soldiers who now lay there. Pretty much anywhere else in the country this would have been a poignant and appropriate tribute to the military service of these men and their families. But not there. They could not rest peacefully there.
It may sound like a wretched and a sacrilegious thing to tell the dead where they should or should not be buried, but most of the soldiers interred at Custer National Cemetery had no significant relationship with the blood soaked land under which they now lie. These men were not combatants in The Battle of Little Bighorn. Many were veterans of 20th century foreign wars, their tombstones signifying if they saw action in World Wars I & II or if they served in Korea or Vietnam. Others were poor souls who had been transported from other, long since abandoned frontier posts throughout the former Montana and Dakota territories. Most of the deceased were born well after the Battle of Little Bighorn had been fought and those who were alive at the time were in uniform elsewhere as soldiers or students. They have no reason to be where they are other than as an assertion of American dominance. This military cemetery could have been placed anywhere in the vast, lightly populated expanse of the state of Montana, but it wasn’t. It was placed here; a 5 iron away from the hill where the United States suffered it’s most ignominious defeat of the American Indian Wars. The cemetery is the US military’s way of marking its territory. It seems to scream out at the Lakota who fought and lived here: You may have won the battle, but we won the war.
The members of the 7th Cavalry who died in combat do not rest in Custer National Cemetery.Those unfortunate men were interred in a mass grave on what is now known as Last Stand Hill.At least, most of them were. While the rank and file were left in a big heap underneath the battlefield, most of the officers were later dug up and transported back east so they could receive more formal burials. Of course, by the time General Sheridan and his men got there a year after the battle, they found that the coyotes had beat them to it and already dug up the bodies of the Custer Brothers, scattering their bones all about the battlefield. At the very least, part of General Custer—and maybe a bit of his brother Tom—currently lies in the cemetery at West Point, where he finished dead last in his class in 1861.
Even if their bodies aren’t physically near, the National Park Service has maintained a number of markers that indicate where historians believe Custer and his men fell on that June day in 1876. I wasn’t able to get a close look at the markers for General Custer and the 40 or so men who died closest to him as the uppermost portion of Last Stand Hill has been cordoned off by an iron fence, but I did manage to see the markers from the more far-flung members of the 7th Cavalry, which were scattered across the landscape in such numbers that stooping down to read them quickly became cumbersome. Making matters worse, the utter annihilation of the men in Custer’s command and the mutilation of their corpses during and after battle prevented the soldiers who found them from being able to identify many of their comrades(1), leaving the bulk of the grave markers at Little Bighorn nameless. One can only see so many gray stone tablets with “U.S. Soldier 7th Cavalry Fell Here June 25, 1876” before the eyes begin to glaze over.
It is telling that only in the past decade or so have markers been placed down for the Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors who died during the battle. For a over a century, Little Bighorn had been the unofficial headquarters of the George Armstrong Custer Mutual Appreciation Society, treating the American Indian participants of the battle as nothing more than historical extras. It was only in 1991 after President George H.W. Bush signed legislation changing the site’s name from “Custer Battlefield National Monument” to the less blatantly jingoistic, “Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument” that the tribal communities of the midwestern plains began to receive recognition for their sacrifice and valor. In the ensuing years, a separate Indian Memorial was built across from the 7th Cavalry Monument and markers for the Indians who fought and died in the battle were gradually erected. The markers themselves are made out of pink granite and have different Lakota symbols etched in them above the deceased’s name, which is written in both his native tongue and in English. After that the name of his tribe is given, followed by the date he died and a note saying that the warrior in question died, “while defending the Lakota Way of Life”.
At his death, General Custer wasn’t defending anything besides his own life and the life of the soldiers under his command. The reason why we can say that a Cheyenne warrior like Cut Belly or Closed Hand fell at Little Bighorn “while defending the Cheyenne Way of Life” is because their land and their villages and, by extension, their way of life was being attacked by US Cavalry. Custer and his men were only defending themselves because their unprovoked offensive failed so spectacularly. As the Hunkpapa Lakota Leader Sitting Bull remarked to a white riverboat captain when told that the Indian chief had frightened him for decades, “I did not come on your land to scare you…If you had not come on my land, you would not have been scared, either.” Custer was not defending the American Way of Life—he was aggressively promoting it.
In the 125 years since the actual Battle of Little Bighorn took place, the narrative of Custer’s Last Stand has convinced tens of millions of Americans that Custer was the victim and the valiant hero who nearly won the day by fighting off hordes of bloodthirsty Indians who were hellbent on his destruction. He was the tragic figure that represented American ambition and gallantry on the frontier and he became more celebrated in death than he was in life, which is saying something considering the man was the biggest Civil War celebrity in the Union outside of Lincoln and Grant and maybe Sherman. Budweiser produced a print that hung in almost every bar in America at the turn of the century depicting The Last Stand, with a sea of savage indians closing around a small group of blue-shirted cavalrymen and, front and center with his buckskin uniform on and his signature red neckerchief flapping in the breeze stands Custer going out in a blaze of glory. The only problem is that all of these accounts of Custer’s heroism conveniently neglect to mention the fact that said savage Indians were only attacking him because the 7th Cavalry had just tried to invade their village and burn, rape and pillage everything in sight, as was Custer’s wont and custom.Once again, I defer to Sitting Bull:“They attacked our village and we killed them all. What would you do if your home was attacked? You would stand up like a brave man and defend it.”
Unfortunately for Sitting Bull and his people, there was very little left to stand and defend in 1876. The only reason there were up to 11,000 Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians camped together in the Little Bighorn River Valley that summer was because it was the only place left in the American West where the buffalo herds upon which they depended hadn’t been wiped out by white settlers and the accoutrement of their civilization. In fact, by the end of the 19th century the number of buffalo roaming the midwestern plains had diminished to the point that a group of elderly Lakota were so grateful to see a small herd of them come near Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota that they hugged the beasts in lieu of killing them.
Beginning with the Gold Rush of 1849, the US government and settlers began to turn their attention to the land held by the Midwestern Plains Indians west of the Mississippi River. It was only 4 years earlier that John O’ Sullivan had coined the term that was to define America’s expansion westward, writing that it was, “our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” God had promised that land to the United States and she wasn’t going to let any pesky notions like human rights or integrity get in her way.
In 1851, The Treaty of Fort Laramie was signed between the US and the Lakota, in which the Lakota were granted sovereignty over their land and $50,000 a year for 10 years in exchange for allowing the free passage of whites on the Oregon Trail to California and the construction of roads and forts on their land. Predictably, the American Government honored this treaty by doing absolutely nothing to stop settlers from gobbling up the Lakota’s land. On the contrary, President Lincoln introduced the first Homestead Act in 1862 which permitted any US citizen who was over 21 and had never taken arms against the US Government to file an application to claim a Federal Land Grant for themselves, often concerning the very land the US had said belonged to the Lakota 11 years earlier. But the Homestead Act of 1862 was just the formal “fuck you” from Uncle Sam since whites had been setting up shop on their land without hindrance pretty much from the moment the treaty was signed.
Fast forward to 1868 and, after a few minor Indian Wars and massacres, the two parties had come back to the negotiating table again to sign a second Treaty of Fort Laramie. Like the one that it was replacing, the Second Treaty of Fort Laramie was as good as doomed from the moment pen hit paper. The treaty established the boundaries for what was called The Great Sioux Reservation, a chunk of land that included the western half of South Dakota, and protected 22 million acres of Lakota hunting grounds in portions of North Dakota and Montana. As had been promised in the first treaty, the US government was to ensure that none of its citizens came onto established reservation land for the purpose of homesteading or exploitation. In return the Lakota were expected to relinquish all of their land located outside of the reservation to the United States and to not impede them in their creation of thousands of miles of railroad tracks, leaving any whites settling outside of the reservation untouched. And, as with the first treaty, the US Government began neglecting their end of the bargain immediately.
In 1874, our boy Custer was called on by President Grant to lead an expedition into The Black Hills, an area that was deeply sacred to the Lakota and had been guaranteed to them in perpetuity as part of the Treaty of Fort Laramie. Ostensibly, the expedition was sent off to trespass on Reservation land in order to look for suitable land for a new fort. In actuality, Custer and his men were looking for gold, which they naturally found in great abundance. This in turn set off a gold rush in the Black Hills and the US Government conveniently chose to look the other way while thousands of prospectors and their families settled down on Lakota land and began divesting the sacred land of all its sparkly goodies. Within a year’s time, there were so many settlers looking for gold in The Black Hills that the Grant Administration determined their only option was to buy the land from their American Indian inhabitants. When their offer inevitably was rejected, the United States started another war with the Lakota, effectively invalidating the second Treaty of Fort Laramie less than 6 years after it was signed.
This is the history of the Frontier: one unending chain of deliberate and malicious mendacity. It is a supreme irony that in this country, someone who gives a gift which they later ask to have back is derogatorily referred to as an “Indian Giver.” When European whites first came across American Indians, they were presented with what they thought were gifts and were duly offended when the Indians wanted them returned to them. What they did not realize was that most Indian cultures operate under a barter economy and that, instead of offering them gifts, they were actually proposing a simple trade of goods. It was simply a cultural misunderstanding that was unfortunately transformed into an ethnic slur over time. There is no such misunderstanding when it comes to the things whites have taken from American Indians . Everything that whites “gave” to the Indians was promptly snatched back and accompanied by a further lunge for more. If an “Indian Giver” is someone who gives you something and later wants it back, then an “Caucasian Giver” is someone who takes something from you while giving you something that was already yours to begin with. Treaty after treaty after treaty, the United States Government “gave” Indian tribes land that they had been living on since before Jesus Christ was a twinkle in his daddy’s omniscient eye while they were busy colonizing other Indian lands which they took as their own without asking.
History is not a science. It is an art. You can never know exactly what happened at any moment in time unless you were there to experience it and, even then, that experience is colored by your own unique perspective. There is no lab where you can go and replicate the past over and over again to test its validity. History is a human construction and who teaches it to you matters as much, if not more than what actually happened. From a very young age we are taught that America has always been victorious in her exploits and that the victories won by our nation were invariably as righteous as they were inevitable. In the narrative that we are spoon-fed from infancy, America is never allowed to be the villain. It is never even for a moment considered that this land we call our home today is stolen property. We teach our children about The Revolutionary War as if we were trapped under this yoke of unconscionable oppression by our British rulers, but barely give mention to the fact that our ancestors systematically drove an entire race of people to the brink of extinction. We learn about how our founding fathers created in this New World the very cradle of democracy—a place where all men are created equal, yet neglect to mention the fact that man who wrote those words into our country’s Declaration of Independence spent much of his adult life having non-consensual sex with his enslaved mistress, Sally Hemmings. There is no serious discussion of the undeniable fact that four of our first five presidents owned people, or that when James Madison said that the purpose of government is to “protect property of every sort” he was referring not just to plots of land and silver, but to the lives of hundreds of thousands of his fellow countrymen.
It is an incantation, our history. It speaks to what we want to hear and believe about ourselves and our past, not what actually happened. The 72-year old rotarian from Lubbock and his blue haired wife who bee lined upon arrival from their van to the air-conditioned confines of the gift shop don’t want to hear about how Custer and some of his men gleefully desecrated a Lakota Burial Ground, stealing ceremonial objects for souvenirs before tossing the corpses in the river. None of the assorted soccer moms standing atop Last Stand Hill are particularly eager to have their tow-headed progeny be told that it was US government policy in the late 19th Century to “Kill the Indian and Save the Man”, by sending American Indian children to boarding schools far away from their families so they could have every aspect of their childhood culture systematically wiped out and replaced with the culture of White America. The people that come to Little Bighorn generally don’t want to go beyond the cowboys vs indians fantasies and the hyper-analyzation of battlefield tactics. They don’t want to think about how some of the descendants of Oglala Lakota warriors like Crazy Horse and Red Hawk who live on Pine Ridge Reservation are born into a world where there is an 85% unemployment rate and as many as 4 in 5 residents struggle with alcoholism. They don’t want to hear that 1 in 4 infants on the reservation show signs of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome or that the mortality rate on Pine Ridge is lower than every other part of the Western Hemisphere besides Haiti.
In all likelihood, none of the people who visited The Little Bighorn Battlefield Monument that day will hear any of those things. My expectations for them are about as high as Sitting Bull’s were for Custer and his men. During the weeks leading up to The Battle of Little Bighorn, Sitting Bull appealed to the Great Spirit of the Lakota known as Wakan Tanka for guidance and mercy through a process of spiritually-guided bloodletting, fasting and dancing. After he had done this for over 24 hours, Sitting Bull finally collapsed to the ground and was revived by some of the members of his tribe. When he opened his eyes and was able to speak, Sitting Bull spoke to them of a vision he had seen of white soldiers and horses, along with a few indians, falling upside down from the heavens and landing in their village. Sitting Bull also said that during the vision he heard a voice telling him that, “these soldiers do not possess ears,” that these soldiers would not listen. The voice in Sitting Bull’s vision was right. Custer and his men did not possess ears—and neither do we.
(1) Here’s a fun little tidbit for you to throw around and impress your friends with at your next dinner party. A rather gruesome detail that has largely been omitted from histories of The Battle of Little Bighorn in an effort to protect Custer’s widow and reputation is that when US soldiers came upon his body after the battle was over, they found that the Lakota had shoved an arrow into the General’s penis. In a vacuum, this seems like a bizarrely cruel way to desecrate a body, but considering the fact that Custer had taken about 50 Cheyenne civilians captive during the Battle of Washita 8 years earlier and essentially pimped the women out to his fellow officers while taking a particularly fetching woman named Monahsetah as his personal sex slave, it makes a lot more sense.